Breaking Down Barriers: Women in Construction Trades


When it comes to the world of construction, women are vastly underrepresented. In the overall labor force, there is roughly a 50-50 split between men and women, compared to only 9% of workers in the construction trades in the United States being women, according to the National Association of Women in Construction

The lack of diversity in the construction trades is not just limited to gender. People of color are also underrepresented in the field. According to the National Association of Minority Contractors, only 6.4% of construction workers in the United States are African American, 2.6% are Asian, and 2.5% are Hispanic.

The construction trades are one of the last industries to integrate women and people of color into its workforce, even though the number of women obtaining degrees in engineering and architecture has been increasing.

Barriers Against Women Joining Construction Trades

There are many barriers that prevent women from joining the construction trades. Some of these barriers include:

1. Lack of role models

One of the biggest barriers to women joining construction trades is the lack of role models. When girls and young women don’t see other women in the industry, it is hard to envision construction as a viable career option for themselves. This lack of representation also makes it harder for women to find mentors and support networks in the industry.

2. Stereotypes

Construction is seen as a male-dominated industry, reinforcing stereotypes about women being less capable than men in physically demanding and technically skilled jobs. Stereotypes can be challenging to overcome, discourage women from pursuing careers in construction, and make them feel unwelcome in the industry.

3. Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is a type of bias that is not necessarily intentional but can still significantly impact on women in the workplace. For example, a hiring manager might unconsciously favor male candidates for construction jobs, even if they are equally as qualified as female candidates. This bias can prevent women from being hired or advancing in their careers in the construction industry.

What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias refers to attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions, without us even realizing it. It occurs when our brains automatically process information based on past experiences, cultural norms, and societal messages, and can lead to unfair treatment of individuals or groups. Unconscious bias is often unintentional and can be difficult to recognize, which is why it can be so harmful in the workplace and other areas of life. However, by becoming more aware of our biases and taking steps to mitigate their impact, we can create a more fair and equitable environment for everyone.

4. Lack of family-friendly policies

The construction industry often requires long hours and irregular schedules, making it difficult for women with more traditional caregiving responsibilities to balance work and family life. The industry also lacks family-friendly policies, such as paid parental leave and flexible work arrangements, making balancing work and family responsibilities even more challenging.

The lack of family-friendly policies in the construction trades can affect men as well as women. Men with caregiving responsibilities, such as those who have children or aging parents to care for, can also face challenges in balancing work and family responsibilities.

In a culture where work-life balance is not highly valued, men may feel pressure to prioritize work over family responsibilities, leading to increased stress, burnout, and potential strain on family relationships. This can be particularly difficult in an industry like construction, which often requires long hours, physically demanding work, and irregular schedules.

5. Harassment and discrimination

Unfortunately, the construction industry has a reputation for harassment and discrimination against women. According to a survey by the National Women’s Law Center, 80% of women in the construction industry reported experiencing sexual harassment on the job. This type of behavior can make women feel unsafe and unwelcome in the industry.

Efforts to Increase Diversity in Construction Trades

Despite these barriers, many efforts underway to increase diversity in the construction industry. Some of these efforts include:

1. Mentoring Programs

Mentoring programs can be a great way to support and guide women entering the construction industry. In addition, these programs can be an invaluable resource for women in the trades, breaking down barriers and helping them advance in their careers while creating a more inclusive and diverse construction industry.

There are several industry groups and organizations that have established mentorship programs for women in the trades. Here are a few examples:

National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC)

NAWIC is a professional organization that advocates for the advancement of women in the construction industry. They offer mentorship programs to connect women with experienced professionals in the industry who can provide guidance and support.

Women in Construction Operations (WiOPS)

WiOPS is a non-profit organization that provides networking and professional development opportunities for women in construction operations. They offer a mentorship program that pairs women in the industry with experienced professionals for one-on-one support.

National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Professional Women in Building (PWB)

PWB is a council within the NAHB that supports women in the home building industry. They offer mentorship programs at both the local and national levels to connect women in the industry with mentors who can help guide them in their careers.

Women Construction Owners & Executives (WCOE)

WCOE is a national organization that advocates for women-owned businesses in the construction industry. They offer a mentorship program that pairs women business owners with experienced professionals who can offer guidance on business development and growth.

2. Role models

Having visible and successful women in leadership positions can help to break down stereotypes and encourage more women to pursue careers in construction. This can also help to create a culture that is more welcoming to women. Having women in high level positions is important for many reasons, including providing representation, leadership, and mentorship. When women see other women in positions of power and influence, it can inspire and motivate them to pursue similar roles and to see what’s possible for their own careers. This is especially important in industries like the construction trades, where women have traditionally been underrepresented.

Women in high level positions can also provide important leadership, by bringing a diversity of perspectives and experiences to the table. This can lead to better decision making, more creative problem solving, and a more inclusive workplace culture.

In addition to representation and leadership, women in high level positions can serve as mentors and role models for other women in the industry. They can share their own experiences, offer guidance and support, and help to open doors for the next generation of women in the field. This can be particularly important for women who may not have access to other mentors or role models in their immediate network.

3. Addressing unconscious bias

Training programs that address unconscious bias can help to reduce the impact of bias in hiring and promotion decisions. This can help to ensure that women are evaluated fairly based on their skills and experience, rather than gender.

4. Family-friendly policies

Offering family-friendly policies, such as flexible schedules and paid parental leave, can help to attract and retain women in the construction industry. However, these policies can also benefit all employees, regardless of gender.

In 2019, Oregon became the eighth state in the United States to pass a paid family leave law, which provides employees with up to 12 weeks of paid time off to care for a new child or a family member with a serious health condition. The Oregon Paid Family and Medical Leave Law (PFML) allows eligible employees to take leave for the birth, adoption, or foster placement of a child, as well as to care for a seriously ill family member or to address their own serious health condition. The leave is paid at a percentage of the employee’s wage, up to a maximum benefit amount.

The PFML program is funded by a payroll tax on both employees and employers. Starting in 2023, employers will be required to contribute 40% of the total payroll tax, with employees contributing the remaining 60%. The program is administered by the Oregon Employment Department, which will provide benefits to eligible employees.

Overall, the Oregon PFML law is part of a growing trend in the United States to expand access to paid family leave, recognizing the importance of supporting working families and caregivers in balancing work and family responsibilities.

5. Addressing harassment and discrimination

Addressing harassment and discrimination head-on is lawful and essential for creating a safe and welcoming environment for women and people of color. In addition, education and supplemental company-wide policies and procedures for reporting and addressing incidents add another layer of support for all people. There are several programs across the United States that are in place to reduce harassment and discrimination in the construction trades. Here are a few examples:

Stand Against Racism
A program by YWCA USA that seeks to eliminate racism and promote diversity and inclusion. The program provides resources and training to organizations to help them address issues of racism and discrimination in the workplace, including the construction industry.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Federal agency that focuses on workplace safety and health. They offer resources and training to help employers and workers prevent workplace violence, including harassment and discrimination.

The National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER)
Non-profit organization that provides training and certification for workers in the construction industry. They offer courses on diversity and harassment prevention to help workers understand the impact of their behavior and language on others, and how to create a more inclusive and respectful workplace.

The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention
A group of industry organizations and individuals that aims to promote mental health awareness and suicide prevention in the construction industry. They provide resources and training to help workers recognize and address issues such as harassment, bullying, and discrimination, which can contribute to mental health problems.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
A federal agency that enforces laws against workplace discrimination. They offer training and resources to help employers and employees understand their rights and responsibilities under the law, and how to prevent and respond to harassment and discrimination.

Final Thoughts

The underrepresentation of women in construction trades is a complex issue. There are a variety of barriers that prevent women from pursuing careers in the industry. However, there are many efforts underway to increase diversity in the field, including mentoring programs, addressing unconscious bias, and implementing family-friendly policies. Addressing harassment and discrimination in the industry is essential for creating a safe and welcoming environment for women. By taking these steps, we can work towards a more diverse and inclusive construction industry that benefits everyone involved.